Death of a King

The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year


With David Ritz

By Tavis Smiley

Read by Tavis Smiley

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A revealing and dramatic chronicle of the twelve months leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Martin Luther King, Jr. died in one of the most shocking assassinations the world has known, but little is remembered about the life he led in his final year. New York Times bestselling author and award-winning broadcaster Tavis Smiley recounts the final 365 days of King’s life, revealing the minister’s trials and tribulations — denunciations by the press, rejection from the president, dismissal by the country’s black middle class and militants, assaults on his character, ideology, and political tactics, to name a few — all of which he had to rise above in order to lead and address the racism, poverty, and militarism that threatened to destroy our democracy.

Smiley’s Death of a King paints a portrait of a leader and visionary in a narrative different from all that have come before. Here is an exceptional glimpse into King’s life — one that adds both nuance and gravitas to his legacy as an American hero.


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I hold this project precious for reasons that are both intensely personal and politically urgent.

As a young boy growing up in a trailer park in rural Indiana, my initial encounter with the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. altered the very course of my life. During the most difficult period of my childhood, a time when I had fallen into deep despair, his spirit entered my soul and excited my imagination. I recognized the rhythms of his rhetorical passion as more than hypnotic: I knew they were righteous. As a result of their disturbing truths, I became a lifelong student of his work as a minister, advocate, and writer. His call to radical democracy through redemptive love resonated with me on a profound level.

I was barely a teenager when I began entering statewide oratorical interpretation competitions by declaiming King's most famous speeches. The thrill of channeling his voice—not to mention my frequent victories—had me believing that my connection to the man was preternatural. It was certainly life affirming. Through the voice of the prophetic minister I eventually found my own voice.

My study of King's pivotal role in the history of this country has never stopped. Over the years, I have spoken with his most important critics, chroniclers, and defenders. I was privileged to enjoy a rewarding friendship with Coretta Scott King, whom I interviewed many times. Her last national television interview was an appearance on my public television program filmed in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2005, on what would have been her husband's seventy-sixth birthday. At her behest, I served on the advisory board at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

Yet for all the years that I have read, discussed, and analyzed King's work, this is the first time I have sought to capture my feelings about him in a book. That's because now, after decades of study, I have come to firmly believe that, in a critical way, he is misunderstood. I further believe that misunderstanding is robbing us of the essence of his character and crusade.

Ironically, his martyrdom has undermined his message. As a public figure who fearlessly challenged the status quo, he has been sanitized and oversimplified. The values for which he lived and died—justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates, no matter the cost—are largely forgotten. He is no longer a threat, but merely an idealistic dreamer to be remembered for a handful of fanciful speeches. That may be the Martin Luther King that the world wishes to remember, but it is not the Martin Luther King that I have come to better understand and love even more.

The King that moves me most is the man who, during the final season of his earthly journey, faced a torrent of vicious assaults from virtually every segment of society, most painfully from his own people.

The symmetry is remarkable:

On April 4, 1967, he comes to the Riverside Church in New York City and delivers a dramatic and controversial speech in impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War.

Exactly twelve months later to the day, on April 4, 1968, he is assassinated in Memphis, where he has traveled on behalf of garbage workers.

The question I attempt to answer in this book is simple:

In his last year, what kind of man has Martin Luther King Jr. become?

In my view, he is a man whose true character has been misinterpreted, ignored, or forgotten. I want to remember—and bring to life—the essential truths about King in his final months before they are unremembered and irrecoverable. This is the King that I cherish: the King who, enduring a living hell, rises to moral greatness; the King who, in the face of unrelenting adversity, expresses the full measure of his character and courage. This is the King who, despite everything, spoke his truth, the man I consider the greatest public figure this country has ever produced.

In constructing this chronicle, I've conducted a series of fresh interviews with three distinct groups: scholars, including his major biographers Taylor Branch, David Garrow, and Clayborne Carson; close friends like Harry Belafonte and Gardner C. Taylor; and associates including Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Dorothy Cotton, and Clarence Jones, among others. The insights gleaned from these firsthand observations have convinced me that the final leg of King's journey was far rougher than I had imagined. The pressures he faced were crushing. Yet he never compromised his core commitment to nonviolence. Not for a minute did he diminish his efforts to address the burning issues of racism, poverty, and the inherent immorality of this nation's unchecked militarism.

Nearly fifty years after King's death, these issues are more pressing than ever. And if, as we relive these last excruciating months in his life, we are made to understand that his mission remains unfulfilled—that the causes for which he gave his life continue to demand the immediate attention of our hearts and minds—then the purpose of this text will be fulfilled.

One final note about the tone of this text:

You will see that I attempt to convey King's inner thoughts during rare moments of self-reflection. Because he was a man in constant motion, these quiet, precious moments were few. My interpretation of these moments—my reading of what was on his mind—derives from my conversations with associates who were actually with him during those intimate times and privileged to hear him voice his heart.

You will also see that I refer to King as "Doc." This was how his most trusted colleagues addressed him. In adopting this nomenclature, I trust that I am not being presumptuous. I use this term of endearment as a way to bring me—and you—closer to the soul of the man.

Tavis Smiley

Los Angeles, California



Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter

Chapter One


On Tuesday, April 4, 1967, Doc sits in his suite at the Americana Hotel in midtown Manhattan, realizing that everything about his public life is about to change. The moment of truth—Doc's truth—has arrived. An hour from now, when he stands in the pulpit of the august Riverside Church, he will face a congregation of four thousand people prepared to hang on his every word.

His mind is made up. He knows what he has to do. But his conviction, no matter how deep, cannot drown out the dissenting voices that clamor inside his head. These voices are more than mere phantoms. They reflect the views of the majority of his supporters. These voices, though now silent assaults, were once spoken aloud with feverish certainty.

Stay in your lane.

You're a preacher, not a politician.

Don't overstep your bounds.

Don't overplay your hand.

You helped push through two of the most important pieces of legislation in our history—for civil and voting rights. Only a fool would now oppose the president who so aggressively championed our cause.

Attacking the Vietnam War is tantamount to attacking Lyndon Johnson. Why turn our most powerful ally into an enemy?

Why undermine the very movement to which you've devoted your life?

Why venture into an area—international politics—about which you have little or no expertise?

Why run the risk?

You're a Nobel laureate, a man respected the world over for his views on matters concerning minority rights and minority dignity. Why undermine your own dignity and standing—your exalted position as a leader of your people—by moving into the morass of arguments over a war that's irrelevant to your purpose?

Why destroy the hard-fought progress you have already made?

Your ego has run amok.

Your sense of restraint has abandoned you.

Where's your common sense?

Where's your concern for your supporters?

Why are you injuring them?

Why are you injuring yourself?

The voices are persistent. Their ominous tone reflects the grave doubts of one of his most trusted aides and chief fund-raiser, Stanley Levison, who openly opposes the speech Doc is about to deliver.

Doc thinks back to the first draft of the speech written by Clarence Jones, a brilliant young black lawyer whom he recruited to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960. Jones had been reluctant to leave his Pasadena, California, home and promising corporate legal career. Even the fact that Doc had come to Jones's home on a Saturday night to personally persuade him didn't move the attorney. But come Sunday morning, sitting in the first pew of the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church and listening to King, as guest preacher, masterfully skewer the black middle class for refusing to fight for its own people, Jones surrendered to the preacher's call to action. The lawyer left his old life behind and became a tireless supporter. It was Jones, in fact, who visited Doc during the spring of 1963 when he was incarcerated in Alabama, where he had written in the margins of newspapers and small scraps of paper "Letter from Birmingham Jail," his celebrated defense of nonviolence.

"We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal,'" wrote King, "… [and] it was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws."

Clarence Jones was dear to Doc's heart, but Jones's first draft of this Vietnam speech was too restrained, too balanced, too reflective of the lawyer's sense of moderation. King had come out against the war on previous occasions, but there had yet to be a definitive statement. So when the national conference of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam asked him to deliver its keynote address at Riverside, he quickly accepted.

As a man who has skillfully sought media attention to bring his message home, Doc understands the power of today's platform.

Riding in the back of the car as it winds its way through the city's swarming streets, he remembers a few months back, when, flipping through a magazine at an airport restaurant, he stopped at a photograph showing the horrific effects of napalm attacks on Vietnamese children.

His aide, seeing that he was no longer eating the food, said, "Doc, doesn't it taste any good?"

"Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war."

In recent weeks Doc has twice canceled meetings with the world's most powerful man, Lyndon Johnson, whose civil rights support he had long courted and secured. Like all mortals, Doc is impressed by a White House invitation. But deeper wisdom tells him to avoid an encounter with a politician whose powers of persuasion are legendary. No doubt LBJ wants to get Doc to tone down his statements on the war when, in fact, Doc is about to dramatically turn up the volume.

It was only sixteen months ago—in January of 1966—that Doc had sent the president a telegram endorsing LBJ's peace efforts and his "reassuring" commitment to keep Vietnam from impeding progress in civil rights. But since the conflict has escalated alarmingly, Doc has come to view Johnson's win-at-all-costs policy as a catastrophe. Right now the last thing he needs is a one-on-one arm-twisting session with LBJ.

Martin Luther King is probably the only Negro in America prepared to turn down a private meeting with the president. It's not that his ego isn't excited by the prospect. Doc is a fiery preacher, and fiery preachers have strong egos. He likes recognition. He likes adulation. Yet his moral mission trumps his hunger for personal glory. He avoids Johnson because he does not want to be played by Johnson. His moral mission cannot be compromised.

The prepared text that he carries in his briefcase is largely the work of Vincent Harding—Korean War veteran, Mennonite peace activist, chairman of the history department at Spelman College, and Doc's Atlanta neighbor. It is a speech that, while setting out a compelling pro-peace position on high moral ground, carefully delineates the modern history of war-torn Vietnam.

As Doc arrives at 120th Street and Riverside Drive and looks out at the great Gothic edifice, his mind goes to the ironies of the moment. He reflects on the proximity of this opulent church, built largely through the contributions of John D. Rockefeller Jr. to the nearby neighborhood of Harlem, where impoverished people struggle for mere subsistence. He thinks of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Riverside's founding minister and eloquent voice of liberal Christianity, who fearlessly denounced racism during the dark days of the thirties and forties. He also thinks that were he ever to leave his beloved home church of Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, where he and his father are co-pastors, it would only be to lead a great progressive congregation like Riverside.

Stepping from the car and walking to the main sanctuary, he considers the furor he is about to create. He remains resolute.

After a standing ovation, the applause quiets and Doc gets down to business, declaring, "I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice."

He quotes the directive of the conference's executive committee: "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

"Some of us," he says, "who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak."

He speaks of his own past ambivalence.

"Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.… When I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.…

"In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly… why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight."

Now Doc is off and running. He quickly links the war—indeed, the very forces of militarism—to racism and poverty. Blacks are fighting and dying at almost twice their proportion of the population. He points to the "cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together at the same schools." He speaks about the rioters who, in answer to his plea for nonviolence, question America's own unchecked violence in Vietnam.

"Their questions hit home," he says, "and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government."

The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.

The phrase will send shock waves through the media.

Doc's full-frontal attack on the war is unequivocal. His five-point plan is clear: Stop bombing, issue a unilateral cease-fire, abandon all bases in Southeast Asia, negotiate with North Vietnam's National Liberation Front, and set a date for complete troop removal.

The war is immoral. The immorality of the war is married to the immorality of poverty and racism. America must turn from the mad pursuit of this war to the pursuit of its moral integrity. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift," he claims, "is approaching spiritual death."

Like the Old Testament prophets he has studied and loved so well, Doc is delivering a prophesy in the sternest possible terms. "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.… We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation."

Moving away from his prepared speech, Doc begins to improvise. True to his bedrock Baptist roots, he points to Amos 5:24, calling forth a sense of faith and hope inherent to his tradition. He invokes a time when "justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The church explodes with thunderous applause. Again, an impassioned and sustained standing ovation.

His speech concluded, Doc leaves the sanctuary.

And then the real fireworks begin.

Chapter Two


On the long flight from New York City to Los Angeles, Doc looks out over the cloud covering of dark gray. Not a glimmer of sunshine. Nursing his stiff drink—vodka and orange juice—he tries to fight back the tears, but the emotions are too strong. The tears flow.

Doc thought he was prepared for the press reaction to his speech, but he wasn't. He isn't. The tears wet his cheeks. The tears expose the pain in his heart. His heavy heart is wounded by what is far more than a negative response. There is a viciousness to the attacks that assaults not only his position but his character as well.

The attacks from the mainstream press are unrelenting:

"Dr. King's Error" is the title of the New York Times editorial. "The political strategy of uniting the peace movement and the civil rights movement could very well be disastrous for both causes," claims the paper before calling Doc's approach "wasteful and self-defeating.… Linking these hard, complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion."

The Washington Post is even more damning: Doc "has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies… and… an even graver injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."

"King has gone off on a tangent," declares Life magazine. "Instead of providing a share of the leadership that the faltering civil rights movement so desperately needs… he introduces matters that have nothing to do with the legitimate battle for equal rights here in America… [and] comes close to betraying the cause for which he has worked so long."

Even more painful for Doc, though, are the attacks from the country's most prominent black citizens. The people he thinks will be most sympathetic to his argument become, in many cases, his fiercest antagonists.

Carl Rowan, perhaps the most prestigious African American journalist—a former United States ambassador and former director of the United States Information Agency—writes in his nationally syndicated column, later to be expanded upon in Reader's Digest, one of the country's most widely read magazines, "Negroes had, in fact, begun to grow uneasy about King. He no longer seemed to be the selfless leader of the 1950s. There was grumbling that his trips to jail looked like publicity stunts. Bayard Rustin, a chief planner of the great civil rights March on Washington in 1963, and himself a pacifist, pleaded in vain with King not to wade into the Vietnam controversy.

"Why did King reject the advice of his old civil rights colleagues? Some say it was a matter of ego—that he was convinced that since he is the most influential Negro in the United States, President Johnson would have to listen to him and alter U.S. policy in Vietnam. Others received a more sinister speculation that had been whispered around Capitol Hill and in the nation's newsrooms for more than two years—talk of communists influencing the actions and words of the young minister. This talk disturbed other civil rights leaders more than anything else.… King has alienated many of the Negro's friends and armed the Negro's foes, in both parties, by creating the impression that the Negro is disloyal. By urging Negroes not to respond to the draft or to fight in Vietnam, he has taken a tack that many Americans of all races consider irresponsible."

Rowan points to a damning Harris poll indicating that one in every two blacks in America considers King dead wrong on the war question. Another 27 percent reserve comment.

If Rowan's assault isn't enough, Doc has to deal with the dagger being wielded by Dr. Ralph Bunche, his fellow Nobel laureate and the first African American to receive the prize. Bunche is not only the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, but also a board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—the oldest and largest civil rights organization in American history. A solid citizen of the black bourgeoisie himself, Doc is devastated when, some days later, a front-page New York Times story reports that Bunche supported an NAACP board position to "oppose the effort to merge the civil rights and peace movements" and had, in fact, "moved to toughen the language of the… resolution by denouncing the merger attempt as a 'serious tactical mistake.'… He added that Walter P. Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers union, another NAACP board member, had supported his proposal."

Attacks from black intellectuals and policy makers is one thing; attacks from the grassroots black press is quite another. It isn't enough for the Pittsburgh Courier to go after him on Vietnam; the paper questions the merits of his recent civil rights work:

"It has only been a few months since Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference abandoned the South to attack problems in the urban north. Chicago was selected for its initial assault and there is still debate over the relative merits of that program last summer. Some have credited Dr. King and his SCLC followers with the defeat of longtime supporter of liberal causes Paul Douglas in his bid for the U.S. Senate. Others say the efforts did little to aid the plight of Chicago's South and West Side Negroes whose problems are more complex than those of a rural community in a Dixie located state." In a final blow, the paper concludes that Doc "does not speak for all Negro America and besides he is tragically misleading them."

Doc puts down the papers.

A second vodka and orange juice.

Another long look out on the vast gray expanse of sky.

A deep sigh.

He closes his eyes, tries to sleep, but sleep won't come. He reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a copy of the speech that has caused all this fury. As he reads it over, he reflects on what has happened. He knows that it wasn't his best delivery. Like the Mississippi blues singer and the New Orleans jazz musician, Doc is a freewheeling improviser. His greatest oratory moments have been spontaneous and, in the very moment of delivery, informed by the spirit, not a prepared text. Riverside was a prepared text. Because the speech was part history lesson and part peace plan, Doc had been careful to make a step-by-step case. That meant mostly sticking to the words written on the page. The result was a formality that subdued his typically soulful, free style.

The Riverside speech was also one of the rare times that Doc's aides distributed the complete text to the press. Not even his celebrated "I Have a Dream" address, delivered four summers ago from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, had been mimeographed and made available to reporters covering the massive rally. John F. Kennedy had refused to attend that march. Afraid that Doc would provoke a riot, the president watched the proceedings on television from the White House. He refused to stand shoulder to shoulder with King. Only when the rally proved peaceful did Kennedy invite Doc and his cohorts to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a photo op.

Doc smiles at the memory of a friend telling him that "I Have a Dream," like "A Change Is Gonna Come" for Sam Cooke, would surely be remembered as his greatest hit. There were indeed high moments in that address:

"There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge. And that is something that I must say to my people who stand on the worn threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.…

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice… will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.


  • Winner of the Jessie Redmon Fauset Book Award

    "A reverential look at Martin Luther King Jr.'s last agonizing year that does not disguise the flaws of a saint.... [A] poignant account of King's final struggle. An eloquent, emotional journey from darkness to light."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Tavis Smiley has captured not only the spirit of the movement, but the Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last days. We didn't realize it but he knew he was on his way to Jerusalem, and as much as we tried to deter him, he fought back."—Andrew Young, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and former Mayor of Atlanta
  • "Death of a King is a fitting climax to a noble saga. It is here adequately told and placed before history."—Reverend Gardner C. Taylor
  • A "microscopically focused biography, which trades in both weighty events and the everyday joys of family life."—Time
  • "Tavis Smiley has brought forward in his book Death of a King an accounting of the last year Dr. King was physically with us -- an accounting very much needed. Tavis rightfully emphasizes the error it is to continually emphasize his martyrdom mostly with no mention of the great work he did. Tavis's book helps people focus on his work and the spirit with which he worked."—Dorothy F. Cotton, Education Director for SCLC, the organization led by Dr. King
  • "Tavis Smiley illuminates the passion and struggle of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last 365 days."—AARP's Editors' Picks
  • "One of the most important political voices of his generation."—The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • "A dramatic retelling of King's final and pivotal year."—Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer
  • "Death of a King paints a portrait of a leader and visionary in a revealing and dramatic chronicle of the 12 months leading up to King's assassination."—Nicole M. Robertson, The Oakland Press
  • "Smiley also serves as the reader for the audio, a factor that gives another level of personalization to the already gripping narrative. In the introduction, Smiley remembers how when he was growing up, he recited the speeches of Dr. King in order to "find his own voice." And what a voice it is. Smiley's narration is smooth, measured, and backed by a rich, authoritative tone that truly adds another level of sentimentality and familiarity to the audio. Recommended for history buffs and those interested particularly in Dr. King."—Brian Odom, Booklist
  • "A must-read.... ... King feels like a real person instead of a larger-than-life caricature."—Kelvin Wade, Daily Republic

On Sale
Sep 9, 2014
Hachette Audio

Tavis Smiley

About the Author

Tavis Smiley is the host of PBS’s Tavis Smiley and Public Radio International’s The Tavis Smiley Show.Smiley is also the bestselling author of 17 books. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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